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Definition: Pegasus from Philip's Encyclopedia

In Greek mythology, winged horse. Born out of the blood of Medusa, it was tamed by Bellerophon and helped him in his battles. Later, it carried the thunderbolts of Zeus.

Summary Article: Pegasus
From The Classical Tradition

Translated by Patrick Baker

Winged horse that, along with Chrysaor, sprang forth from Medusa when she was beheaded by Perseus; Poseidon is considered their father (Hesiod, Theogony 278-286). In mythology Pegasus is associated in particular with the Corinthian hero Bellerophon, who either tamed him with Athena's help (Pindar, Olympian Odes 13.66-86) or received him as a gift from Poseidon; together they won a series of battles against the Chimera or Amazons (Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 2.3.1-2). After Bellerophon's deadly fall during his attempt to explore the heavens, Pegasus flew to Olympus alone, where he served Zeus by carrying lightning and thunder. Later he appeared as a constellation between Andromeda and Aquarius.

Pegasus's reception has been divided into two strands since antiquity: his role in the Perseus and Bellerophon myths, and an allegorical-symbolic interpretation that is largely independent of these myths. The former is found intact from the Greek archaic period down to modern times, although its precise form depends on the popularity and interpretation of Perseus and Bellerophon prevailing at any given time. Many paintings show Perseus with Pegasus when the former frees Andromeda (Peter Paul Rubens, Perseus Liberating Andromeda, ca. 1622; Giovanni Battista Tiepolo's Perseus and Andromeda, ca. 1730). In music Pegasus had a firm place in the numerous Bellerophon operas of the 18th century (Jean-Baptiste Lully, Bellerophon, 1679; Christoph Graupner, Bellerophon, 1708; R. Keiser, Iobates and Bellerophon, 1717; J. F. Binder von Krieglstein, Bellerophon, 1785). Beginning in Byzantine times Pegasus was also placed in the service of the Christian imagination—in analogy to the ancient myth—as a war horse, such as when the Archangels Michael and Gabriel fight atop a winged horse. In Ariosto's Orlando furioso (34.51-59) Pegasus serves the knight Astolfo, who survives adventures similar to those of Bellerophon. Unlike the ancient hero, however, he manages to return safely to the Earth after his moon flight precisely because he was on a Christian mission and was not motivated by hubris.

The allegorical-symbolic interpretation of Pegasus' myth is based on two specific deeds and is encouraged by the possible etymology of his name from the Greek pegē, meaning "spring": by stomping his hoof, Pegasus is supposed to have tapped both the Peirene spring at Corinth and the Hippocrene in Boeotia (Strabo 8.379). Because of the Hippocrene's proximity to Helicon, the mountain of the Muses, the latter deed provided the foundation for Pegasus' symbolism as a poet-horse, which was a popular motif in art and literature starting in the Hellenistic period. As a source for inspiration and wisdom, Pegasus symbolizes the flight of thoughts as well as the way to truth, and in allegorizing depictions he was placed in direct proximity to Apollo and the Muses. Andrea Mantegna's Parnassus (1495-1497) portrays Pegasus next to the nine Muses, accompanied by Hermes. Other important artistic portrayals of this allegorizing interpretation include Andrea Schiavone's Pegasus Crowned by a Muse (1543-1546), Luca Cambiaso's Apollo, the Muses and Pegasus (mid-16th cent.), Gustave Moreau's A Muse and Pegasus (ca. 1871), Albert Pinkham Ryder's The Poet on Pegasus Entering the Realm of the Muses (1883-1887), and Giorgio de Chirico's Apollo with Pegasus (1958). In literature this motif is employed especially in Neo-Latin didactic poems and educational texts as an image of the human striving for knowledge. Giordano Bruno put it to satirical use in his dialogue The Cabala of Pegasus (1585): not only does the ass Onorio tell of his ancient transformation into the famous Pegasus, but in various metamorphoses (into the philosopher Aristotle, among others) he also exposes the "asininity" of ancient philosophy and the Christian religion, and in dialogue with Bruno's other speaker, Saulino, he preaches his own naturalistic world-view. Equally satirical is Friedrich Schiller's treatment of the motif in his ballad "Pegasus in Harness" (1795): he reduces Pegasus from a poet-steed to an everyday horse that falls into the wrong hands and loses his inspirational power by eating earthly food; only in the care of a poet is he able to be revitalized.

Owing to his swiftness and ability to fly, a second allegorical interpretation associates Pegasus with "winged" Fama, that is, poetic "fame" or, more simply, "rumor." Based on Fulgentius (1.26), this interpretation recurs in, among others, Boccaccio (Genealogy of the Gods of the Gentiles 10.26) and the Ovidius moralizatus (5808-5811), both of the 14th century, and posits a strict connection between a heroic deed and its fame in poetry.

Today the name Pegasus lends itself concretely to products from the world of horses. It is also used just as often as a symbol: for every form of flying (airlines, satellites), as well as for the speed and universal reach of online magazines, e-mail programs, and oil companies.

  • Shapiro, M., "Perseus and Bellerophon in 'Orlando Furioso,'" Modern Philology 81 (1983) 109-130.
  • Yalours, N., Pegasus: The Art of the Legend (Athens1975).
M. BA.
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